The Bright, Feathered "Aha!"
The Bright, Feathered "Aha!"" October 21, 2015
I like doing laundry.
From messy and dirty to clean and organized in less time than carpool and without any trips to Home Depot. Plus, in my household anyway, it’s generally a solitary activity.
I grab clothes out of the dryer, pivot, and fling them on the carpeted floor behind me. Apologies if you’re bothered by my throwing clean clothes on the floor. But that’s not the point of the story—keep reading.
So I fling all the clothes out there and then sit in their midst to sort and fold and stack.
This image came to mind recently while I was meditating and trying to calm my brain. I had the image of grabbing those whirling thoughts, turning, and flinging them out of my head. Then, after meditating, I could go sit among them, sort, stack and discard. When I sort and stack consistently, then, as Seth Godin says in his blogpost Alphagrams, I begin to notice patterns.
A pattern I’ve begun to notice is my new intention to smile.
I’m trying to have a slight smile be my normal resting face. I want normal to look happy, not worried. And, let me just put it out there: vanity whispers that smile lines are much more attractive than frown lines. I’m just saying.
I’m also trying to smile when talking to my husband and children. Especially when talking with children about behavior. I try to take a breath, put a pleasant smile on my face, and then say calmly, “Look at me. I’m not mad at you. But that is the second time I’ve asked you to stop. Next time there’s a consequence.”
There’s this balance pose in yoga called Warrior 3 ( or Virabhadrasana III for you Sanskrit lovers). It kinda feels like pretending to be a flying superhero. My teacher, Brian, says the higher level of practicing this difficult posture is to relax your face so that the people looking up at you (the ones you’re about to save) aren’t afraid of you.
Ditto children. When they’re not immediately confronted with anger (or perceived anger: stress, fear, concern, frustration, tiredness—all of these emotions look like anger to a child), then they can listen to my words instead of reacting to my face. Generally, they respond well. Even when I am angry (and by golly they often deserve anger), I try to breathe and smile a tiny smile before speaking. Otherwise my anger escalates theirs. Then no one is listening.
And here’s the most important reason. Smiling helps me keep myself in perspective.
“Have you ever noticed that in any situation, when your ego is invested, afraid, or needy, it’s very hard to smile? But when the truth is not your personal possession, it is very easy to smile,” --Richard Rohr, The Naked Now
The book is Rohr's explanation of dualistic thinking, why it is so harmful to one’s spiritual growth, and how practicing contemplation can help us move beyond being stuck in dualism. Contemplation helps us to be willing to stay in ‘the naked now’ of a moment, or what is sometimes called unitive consciousness. Don’t let the language scare you off. As Rohr says, for most of Christian history this has simply been called prayer. But contemporary Christianity has lost the art and tradition of going beyond either/or.
Jack is so good at either/or. He possesses the truth and often likes to wield it. And he delights in language and precision. Sometimes, when I can take that deep breath and dig down for a little more patience, I can jump in and deflect an argument. I can clarify the existential distinctions he’s intuited but can’t explain. For example at supper:
Jack: Emma, the spinach isn’t bad. It’s good.
Emma: No, it’s yucky.
Jack: It’s not yucky. Nothing is yucky.
Me: Okay, okay. She doesn’t like it. It would be more precise for her to say “the spinach is good but I don’t like it,” right?
Emma: It’s yucky!
Jack: No it’s not! I ate my bite, and I liked it (but I don’t want more). You don’t have to like it. But it is still good.
Me: Emma, could you say, “I don’t like it.”
Emma: I don’t like it.
Jack: But it’s still good.
Jack: Okay. Good!
Me: Praise Jesus.
Childhood is naturally black/white either/or dualism. For Jack, for now, that’s okay. We have to be able to draw distinctions. Nuance takes some maturity.
And whereas Jack’s bickering with Emma is annoying, I understand his side. He really did beat her to the door, or drink the most water, or pick the bigger apple.
I get it. I’ve been there. Hell, I am there.
It’s so true that our children can be our best teachers. Jack’s black/white, either/or and need to be right are amplified and relentless views of my own inner demons without the layers of gloss I’ve added to disguise them from other people. Jack’s is an “unvarnished truth”, and the starkness is almost painful.
For years I put a spiritual gloss on mine by calling it integrity. Not so much that I had THE Truth. Just a hyper vigilance on ‘mean what you say and say what you mean.’ I still advocate that. I still try to practice it. But I’ve gotten better about being less defensive. I am more comfortable with being able to say: this is my truth, and I’m not sure how it all fits together, and maybe I’ll change later, and that will be okay, too. But for now, I come out here. And I try to smile.
How do we get beyond the stark dualism to the reality of connectedness? In Christianity we have this marvelous, difficult, mysterious reality called paradox.
A paradox is a statement or series of statements that are seemingly contradictory. Like Paul saying, “When I am weak, then I am strong.” Or most of the Beatitudes.
In religion and philosophy, paradox can create just enough tension to make you release the intellectual stranglehold of proof and perhaps experience, if only fleetingly, that unitive consciousness we talked about earlier. Both/And. Not either/or.
If we become calcified in our beliefs, or try to pin them down too scientifically, then we miss the larger patterns and the larger gift that is the connectedness of Creation. But if you do think that scientific bent is important, consider this thought from the fabulous short video Crash Course Astronomy #1:
“Understanding that our understanding might be wrong is essential, and trying to figure out the ways we might be mistaken is the only way that science [or, I would add, religion] can help us find our way to the truth.”
We are not taught to encounter paradox as meaningful. And so we don’t know what we don’t know. Again, Rohr is so splendid and simple: “We cannot see what we were never told to look for; we cannot do what is not offered as do-able.”
It is the Advent conundrum of preparing for the unexpected joy. To know the Epiphany when you see it. If you aren’t prepared then you’ll miss it. You won’t make the connection. You won’t see the pattern.
You won’t believe it, but just this minute I saw a Rose-Breasted Grosbeak!
Writing is such hard work for me. I have to do it in small, frantic bursts and then wander around a bit. Fling some laundry, check the mail.
I had gone outside to enjoy the sun’s warmth after weeks of rain. I opened my eyes when I heard wings. Several small birds settled in the Dogwoods. House Finches. Not Purple Finches, whose appearance I always remember from my trusty Peterson guide description as “a sparrow dipped in cranberry juice”.
A Hummingbird purposefully darted to a late rose. A Cardinal chirped. Then I noticed a bigger bird on a Dogwood. It only took a moment to determine what it was. Then a few more moments to make sure, because this was the first time I’ve ever seen a Rose-Breasted Grosbeak. I wish I’d heard it sing, because I love Peterson’s description of its voice: “resembles Robin’s song, but mellower, given with more feeling (as if a Robin had taken voice lessons)”.
One minute. Sixty seconds of fleeting beauty.
When I had nursing babies, after that beautiful/dreadful 2:30 am nursing, I would crawl back in bed exhausted and try to be thankful that no one needed me. I would put the baby down, stretch a little and make sure he/she was truly quiet, lie down and pray, “Thank you for this minute. This one minute without crying. This one minute when they might go to sleep. This one minute that I can rest.”
Lately Emma has discovered the minute. At bedtime she asks me to lie down with her “just for one minute!” Before breakfast she vows we could have a picnic “just for one minute”; or, when begging for a treat she insists she wants “just one!”
She is God’s voice to me saying: Slow down and appreciate this moment, this now. This unexpected joy.
I so easily could have missed the Grosbeak.
I could have stayed inside. (Stay on task. NO breaks!) I could have ignored the wings. I could have remained preoccupied with the words in my head. Or I could care less about birds. But, in fact, I like birds. Their unscripted appearances always feel like gifts to me. And I like looking at bird books. I keep hoping to discover a close kinship with David Allen Sibley.
I knew a Rose-Breasted Grosbeak when I saw one because I’d desired to see one. I’d often looked at the picture. I’d compared the finches I saw with the picture of the one I wanted to see. I had eyes to see and ears to hear. I was prepared for the unscripted moment, the moment of the gift. The bright, feathered “Aha!”
Sometimes I feel that Aha! in meditation. And, as with the Grosbeak, it is fleeting. As though once recognized, it flies. When the moment of connection and union becomes me recognizing—aware of—the union, it is no longer union. But it wasunion. That is my Truth.
One Sunday before church, our friend, Ann, a lovely soul struggling with dementia, reached over me to talk with Jack. I’d told Ann that we were going to see Maryneal (my mother-in-law and Ann’s long-time best friend), and she said, “Jack, tell Maryneal I love her!”
Jack looked sideways at me but said politely, “Okay. What’s your name?”
Later Jack dutifully conveyed the message to Nana. Maryneal gushed, “Oh, Jack, that’s wonderful, honey. When you see Ann next week, you tell her how much I love her.”
Jack looked thoughtful and asked, “Okay. How much do you love her?”
There is a time for precision, and there is a time for paradox. Our faith is big enough for both.
We can keep discovering the ways our understanding is mistaken so that we can find our way to the Truth. If we keep organizing the material consistently, we may start to notice the patterns.
And maybe even begin to smile.